Joseph Smith/Alleged false prophecies/The prophetic test in Deuteronomy 18
Using Deuteronomy 18 as a "prophetic test"
|Joseph Smith, Jr.|
Evangelicals point to Deuteronomy 18:20-22 as a 'test' for a true prophet:
- 20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
- 21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken?
- 22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
It is claimed that Joseph Smith made failed prophecies, and as such must be a "false prophet."
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
When critics charge Joseph Smith with uttering a "false prophecy" they are generally making one or more errors:
- they rely on an inaccurate account of Joseph actually wrote or said, or they misrepresent Joseph's words;
- they ignore or remain unaware of circumstances which fulfilled the prophecy;
- they ignore or deny the clear scriptural principle [Jeremiah 18:7-10] that prophecy is contingent upon the choices of mortals;
Many LDS critics attempt to condemn Joseph Smith using a standard that would, if applied to Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Nathan, an angel of God, and Jonah, also condemn the Old Testament as a fraud. No reasonable or biblical application of Deuteronomy 18 condemns Joseph Smith. Like the prophets of the Bible, Joseph's prophetic claims cannot be tested by looking for a failure in "fore-telling"—we must, as with the biblical prophets, decide if Joseph "knew God in the immediacy of experience," by weighing "the moral and religious content" of his message as he "challeng[es] his hearers to respond to the divine standards of spirituality through acts of cleansing and renewal of life," which may only be ultimately judged by the source of prophecy—God himself. Every prophet is an invitation to enter into a "prophetic" relationship with God for ourselves, to communicate with him, and obtain the testimony of Jesus for ourselves.
Confusion on this point arises from one or more errors:
- prophecy may be fulfilled in ways or at times that the hearers do not expect;
- most prophecies are contingent, even if this is not made explicit when the prophecy is given—that is, the free agent choices of mortals can impact whether a given prophecy comes to pass
- sectarian critics may apply a standard to modern LDS prophets whom they reject that they do not apply to biblical prophets. This double standard condemns Joseph unfairly.
This article discusses each of these errors.
#1: Fulfillment in unexpected ways
Deuteronomy doesn't exactly say that one mistake makes a false prophet. James L. Mays, editor of Harper's Bible Commentary writes:
- Prophecy in the names of other gods is easily rejected, but false prophecy in God's name is a more serious matter. This dilemma requires the application of a pragmatic criterion that, although clearly useless for judgments on individual oracles, is certainly a way to evaluate a prophet's overall performance.
The problem with applying Deut. 18:22 to a single, individual prophecy is that some prophecies can be fulfilled in complex ways or at times much later than anticipated by the hearers. As one conservative Bible commentator noted:
- As far as external considerations were involved, therefore, there would appear to have been [in Old Testament times] virtually no means of differentiating the true from the false prophet....While the popular view current in the seventh century B.C. distinguished a true prophet from a false one on the basis of whether their predictions were fulfilled or not, this attitude merely constituted an inversion of the situation as it ultimately emerged, and not an absolute criterion of truth or falsity as such. As Albright has pointed out, the fulfilment of prophecies was only one important element in the validation of a genuine prophet, and in some instances was not even considered to be an essential ingredient, as illustrated by the apparent failure of the utterances of Haggai [Haggai 2:21] against the Persian empire.R.K. Harrsion, Introduction to the Old Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969); reprint edition by (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 755–756.
#2: Most prophecies are contingent on human actions
The Bible contains many examples of God choosing to reverse or revoke certain prophecies, as He says He is free to do in Jeremiah:
- 7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
- 8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
- 9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
- 10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.Jeremiah 18:7-10
This principle is also illustrated in 1Sam 2:30 where, because of the wickedness of the priests, the Lord revokes his promise that the house of Aaron will forever serve him:
- 30 Wherefore the Lord God of Israel saith, I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord saith, Be it far from me; for them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.
#3: Double standards
Many Bible prophets would not survive the critics' hostile application of Deuteronomy 18 as Jewish and Christian commentators have long realized.
The reading which the critics wish to apply to modern day prophets does not match how scholars of Judaism have understood Deuteronomy in its Old Testament context.
Wrote one author:
- "The true prophet, as intercessor, was ready to risk a confrontation with God, in contrast to his counterpart, the false prophet. The problem of distinguishing between them was indeed perplexing, as shown by two separate passages in Deuteronomy...The answer given is that if the 'oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord; the prophet uttered it presumptuously.' This, however, cannot serve as an infallible criterion, because there are several occasions when an oracle delivered by a true prophet did not materialize even in his own lifetime. Such unfulfilled prophecies include Jeremiah's prediction of the ignominious fate of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:19), which was belied by 2 Kings 24:6, and Ezekiel's foretelling the destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel 26:7-21), which was later admitted to have failed but was to be compensated by the Babylonian king's attack on Egypt (Ezekiel 29:17-20)"
We will see examples in the next section of biblical prophets who would be labeled as "false prophets" if the critics were consistent in their application of Deuteronomy.
The Jewish Study Bible observed:
- Having established an Israelite model of prophecy, the law provides two criteria to distinguish true from false prophets. The first is that the prophet should speak exclusively on behalf of God, and report only God's words. Breach of that rule is a capital offense (Jeremiah 28:12-17.) The second criterion makes the fulfillment of a prophet's oracle the measure of its truth. That approach attempts to solve a critical problem: If two prophets each claim to speak on behalf of God yet make mutually exclusive claims- (1 Kings 22:6 versus 1 King 22:17; Jeremiah 27:8 versus Jeremiah 28:2)- how may one decide which prophet speaks the truth?
- The solution offered is not free of difficulty. If a false prophet is distinguished by the failure of his oracle to come true, then making a decision in the present about which prophet to obey is impossible. Nor can this criterion easily be reconciled with Deuteronomy 13:3, which concedes that the oracles of false prophets might come true. Finally, the prophets frequently threatened judgment, hoping to bring about repentance (Jeremiah 7:, Jeremiah 26:1-6). If the prophet succeeds and the people repent and thereby avert doom (Jonah 3-4:), one would assume the prophet to be authentic, since he has accomplished God's goal of repentance. Yet according to thee criteria here (but contrast Jeremiah 28:9), the prophet who accomplished repentance is nonetheless a false prophet, since the judgment oracle that was proclaimed remains unfulfilled. These texts, with their questions and differences of opinion on such issues, reflect the vigorous debate that took place in Israel about prophecy."
Specific biblical examples
Be careful in how you apply Deut. 18:22, for you threaten to reject some true prophets in the Bible! There are several examples in the Bible where a true prophet prophesied something which did not happen as he stated.
Perhaps the clearest example is found in the story of Jonah, who was told by God to prophecy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah eventually did what he was told and prophesied the simple clear prophecy that the people would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4). The time frame was clear and no loopholes were offered, just imminent doom. The scriptures state explicitly, however, that the people repented of their sins and that God changed his mind, sparing the city.
Jonah was "displeased ... exceedingly" and "very angry" (Jonah 4:1) about God's decision, perhaps because it made Jonah look bad. In spite of what might look like an "incorrect" prophecy, and in spite of Jonah's obvious shortcomings, he was clearly a prophet of God, delivering the precise message that God had given him, but it was ultimately the conditional nature of prophecy that determined the outcome.
The prophet Ezekiel provides another example of how true prophets may prophesy things that do not happen exactly as one might expect. In Ezekiel chapters 26, 27, and 28, we read that Tyre (a fortified island city) would be conquered, destroyed, and plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The riches of Tyre, it was stated, would go to Babylon (Ezekiel 26:12). Nebuchadnezzar's army did lay siege to Tyre, and its inhabitants were afflicted, apparently so much that they shaved their heads bald, exactly as prophesied in Ezekiel 27:31. However, the 13-year Babylonian siege apparently was not quite as successful as Ezekiel had predicted, perhaps because the land-based tactics of Babylonian sieges were less effective against a fortified island city with significant maritime power. The result of the siege may have been a compromise or treaty rather than total destruction and plunder, for (Ezekiel 29:17-20) reports that the predicted plundering did not take place. Almost as if in compensation, the Lord now announces that He will give Egypt to the Babylonians, which is the theme of chapter 29 (Ezekiel 29:17-20):
- 17 And it came to pass in the seven and twentieth year, in the first month, in the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
- 18 Son of man, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon caused his army to serve a great service against Tyrus: every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyrus, for the service that he had served against it:
- 19 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil, and take her prey; and it shall be the wages for his army.
- 20 I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served against it, because they wrought for me, saith the Lord GOD. (emphasis added)
Tyre is no more, but its complete destruction did not occur during the Babylonian siege, and the Babylonian army did not get the riches of Tyre as has been prophesied. It is Ezekiel himself who reports this "prophetic failure."
The purpose in raising this example is not to question the wisdom of the Lord, nor the truthfulness of the Bible, but to point out that an overly critical attitude and a black-and-white application of Deut. 18:22 may reject even true, Biblical prophets. If we try hard enough to find reasons to reject a prophet, we will surely succeed, but we must beware lest we judge unwisely and reject those whom God has sent and anointed.
Another example to consider is the prophet Jeremiah—a great and inspired prophet—who prophesied that king Zedekiah would "die in peace" (Jeremiah 34:4-5). Critics could argue that this prophecy did not prove to be true, for Zedekiah saw his sons killed by the conquering Babylonians and was himself blinded and put in prison, where he died in captivity—not in peace (Jeremiah 52:10-11). Of course, the point is that he would not be killed by the sword, but die of natural causes—albeit in prison—yet to the critics, it may look like a case of a false prophecy. This case is certainly less clear-cut than the prophecy of Ezekiel discussed above, yet also serves to warn us against harsh judgments.
Other examples include Nathan:
- In 2 Samuel 7:5-17, we read that the prophet Nathan unequivocally prophesied to David that through his son Solomon the Davidic empire would be established "forever," that the children of Israel would dwell in the promised land "and move no more," and that the "children of wickedness" would no longer afflict them. These things are quite clearly stated. No conditions are attached to these promises, none whatsoever.
Yet this prophecy, interpreted literally, clearly did not prove successful. Again human sin or choice will affect whether God will choose to bless or punish a people. This is implicit in all such prophecies.
Finally, there are the words of the angel who spoke to Samson's mother:
- In Judges 13:5, it is recounted that an angel promised Samson's mother that Samson would "begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." No matter how liberal or expansive one wants to be with the facts of Israelite history (as recorded in the Bible or elsewhere), and while it is true that Samson at the end of his life did do some damage to the rulers of the Philistines, there is no way it can reasonably be concluded that Samson fulfilled this prophecy.
- Not only did Samson fail to even "begin" to free Israel from the Philistines, but (1) there were times when he consorted with Philistine women, (2) he married a Philistine, (3) he himself never even led any Israelite troops against the Philistines, and (4) the Philistines eventually humiliated him.
- Moreover, and most importantly, Israel actually lost ground to the Philistines during Samson's tenure. Judges 13-16 illustrates Philistine encroachment into Hebrew territory. The Samson narrative documents the eastward expansion of the Philistines by mentioning the Philistine presence in Timnah and Lehi, both in the strategic valley of Sorek (Achtemeier 1985:787-791). This Philistine expansion worsened the land shortage that eventually forced the Danites to migrate northward.
- Of course, the nonfulfillment of Judges 13:5 can be attributed to Samson's failure to live according to his Nazarite calling. In addition to his sexual liaisons, he married a Philistine, ate unclean food, drank wine, and allowed his hair to be cut. Therefore, it could be said that the angel's prophecy was nullified by Samson's behavior. However, the angel placed absolutely no conditions on his promise that Samson would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. He simply declared that Samson would do so.
"Foretelling" as prophecy
Foretelling the future is often what people mean when they speak of "prophecy." But, this is a relatively minor aspect of prophecy for biblical and modern prophets. More importantly, "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19:10). Like biblical prophets, a modern prophet expends more time and energy bearing witness of Christ than foretelling the future. "Of vastly greater importance" than future-telling, noted conservative Old Testament scholar R.K. Harrison, "was the moral and religious content of the prophetic utterance, and its ability to recall to the minds of the hearers the obligations of the Covenant relationship. The truth belonged...to the content, where alone it could be tested and shown to be the veritable word of God."
In the minority of cases in which a prophet is engaged in "foretelling," rather than some other aspect of the prophetic mission, it may take one of at least three forms:
- As a sign to the unbelieving and comfort to the believers. One example from modern LDS history is the prophecy mentioned in the 1857 Deseret News editorial addressed to Stephen A. Douglas—("That you may thoroughly understand that you have voluntarily, knowingly, and of choice sealed your damnation, and by your own chosen course have closed your chance for the presidential chair, through disobeying the counsel of Joseph which you formerly sought and prospered by following..."). These are probably the rarest type.
- As a timeline to the church or to individuals, to tell us where we are falling behind in preparation for things to come (signs of the times) or to help us not worry about something that is still a long ways off (e.g., "Be not soon shaken in mind or be troubled,...as that the day of Christ is at hand" [2 Thessalonians 2:2]). Such examples are likewise relatively rare in scripture.
- By far the most common example are prophecies given as part of a call to repentance, or included with instructions regarding behavior. Such prophecies are always conditional, whether explicitly or implicitly, since God offers them to encourage and spur us to obedience—there is little reason to send a prophet or cry repentance if the punishment for disobedience cannot be averted by improved behavior (Jeremiah 18:, discussed above).
- Harrison, 755.
- This wiki article was originally based on Jeff Lindsay, "If any prophecy of a so-called prophet proves to be wrong, shouldn't we reject him? Isn't that the standard of Deut. 18:22?," off-site Due to the nature of a wiki project, the text may have been modified, edited, and had additions made.
- James L. Mays (editor), Harper's Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 226.
- Shalom M. Paul, "Prophecy and Prophets" a supplemental essay in Etz Hayim, a Torah/Commentary published by the Jewish Publication Society, 1411, (emphasis added).
- Jewish Study Bible (published by the Jewish Publication Society), commentary on Deu. 18:20-23.
- This example comes from Daniel C. Peterson, "Review of Decker's Complete Handbook on Mormonism by Ed Decker," FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 38–105. off-site
- Michael T. Griffith, "Vindicating Prophecy: Why the Anti-Mormon View of Prophecy Is Invalid," in One Lord, One Faith (Horizon Publishers, 1996).
- Michael T. Griffith, "Vindicating Prophecy: Why the Anti-Mormon View of Prophecy Is Invalid," in One Lord, One Faith (Horizon Publishers, 1996).
- Harrison, 756.